People have called it a political revolution, flashmob, class warfare, vandalism, adolescent ennui, a social media frenzy… International and Brazilian media have been busy commenting on what's been happening in Brazilian shopping malls since December 2013.
TV has featured images of thousands of young people invading malls in large numbers, singing funk music through the corridors, scaring shoppers and business owners who are unsure if the excursion will take an aggressive turn.
The phenomenon is called "rolezinho" (meaning strolling around) and the first happening took place on December 7 in Itaquera, a neighbourhood on the eastern periphery of Sao Paulo. The rolezinho was organised by a group of youngsters on Facebook to take a little stroll around the mall. Somehow, it turned into a huge gathering where close to 6,000 young Brazilians showed up at the mall creating fear among the merchants and customers. There were some accounts of robbery during the day, but overall it was more the anxiety generated by the large numbers of loud adolescents created than any actual criminal activity.
The media coverage of the Itaquera event inspired several other rolezinhos in various shopping malls. The events that followed were not uniform in character, some had a political agenda expressing concerns about social issues, others were simply a gathering where young people met to stroll around and meet girls.
Brazil is known for its recent obsession with shopping malls. Between 2006 and 2012, there were 106 new centres built throughout Brazil marking a 23 percent increase (Po) in a single year between 2011 and 2012. Malls are built in cities with a population of more than 100,000 with the largest number of shopping centres concentrated in Sao Paulo. Approximately 9 million people (Po) visit shopping centres every day across Brazil.
The mall comes to occupy a symbolic space in Brazil, both highlighting the country's obsession with consumption as well as calling attention to the security crisis that is thought to exhibit the rage of the Brazilian underclasses. Due to high crime rates largely attributable to social inequalities, malls have become a safe haven of consumption.
The concept of street shopping is virtually non-existent for the elite classes who live in constant fear of being victims of assaults or kidnappings. Besides a few streets in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the upper and upper middle classes almost exclusively shop in indoor malls where they are comforted by the presence of security guards and surveillance cameras. These malls function as relatively secure zones for the consumptive proclivities of society, providing everything under one roof, shopping, entertainment and amenities such as post offices, banks and supermarkets.
An ostentation-funk revolution?
The initial series of rolezinhos in Sao Paulo's malls were not political in character, but when the management in some malls started denying entrance to visitors due to concerns associated with such large groups, they provoked a hostile reaction that quickly produced an intense political debate. Skin colour, age, appearance and clothing played a big role in who got in and who was left out. The most symbolic event took place at JK Iguatemi, an ultra luxury mall in Sao Paulo which shut down early on a Saturday to avoid an anticipated visit by the rolezinho youth. The closure was widely interpreted in the media as an evidence of the segregation of Brazilian society and the fear among the rich of the underclasses.
Those who participated in rolezinhos were characterised by a stylised appearance associated with the musical genre "ostentation funk" (Po). The majority of ostentation funk followers are young people from poor and lower middle classes who openly aspire to a materialistic lifestyle but in a manner that is almost a parody of the way the wealthy live in Brazil.
The majority of ostentation funk followers are young people from poor and lower middle classes who openly aspire to a materialistic lifestyle but in a manner that is almost a parody of the way the wealthy live in Brazil.
The lyrics of ostentation funk are about flaunting luxury objects, driving around in expensive cars, wearing clothes that prominently display the brand names.
The media quickly turned rolezinhos into a political debate about race and class, denying people of colour from the peripheries access to the spaces of the white elite, yet most ostentation funkers had no such political agenda. It was materialistic envy or simply an attempt to meet up with peers that led these young people to flock to the rolezinhos.
Another goal of the organisers of the rolezinhos was to identify spaces to meet girls. A couple of young social media stars started calling their followers (Pr) to show up at the mall. It is a common phenomenon these days among youth to create a huge following on the internet simply by making a funny video or having a knack for using social media for personal promotion. They gain thousands of fans and followers for to their Facebook and Instagram profiles. Political leaders should envy the ease with which these popular kids of social media communicate, organise, and mobilise numbers of people with minimal effort and for such elemental objectives as meeting girls at the mall.
While the events were not necessarily seeking to mount a critique of social injustice in Brazil, their occurrence sparked political discussions that were long overdue in the country. It is of course ironic that a movement that started by being strongly associated with a pop culture genre that affirms materialism and flashiness as the only desirable aspects in life should have morphed into a social critique.
With a population of 200 million and a fragile infrastructure that fails to provide the Brazilian masses with much excitement in public spaces, there are plenty of opportunities for social innovation of which rolezinhos are a vivid example. At times of big events, festivals, holidays as well as political demonstrations, there is always a widely shared anxiety that the entire system might implode because of its inability to calm the multitudes. The fear aroused by the rolezinhos seemed partly due to the numbers that showed up at malls inexperienced in handling such crowds. Those concerned with mall security became afraid that these events could quickly become chaotic and turn into a disaster.
For a long time, Brazil's political agenda has served to encourage the growing middle classes, referred to as the C classes, to consume as a strategic means to stimulate the country's economy. As a consequence of this, a national obsession with spaces of consumption becomes inevitable, at times giving rise to needed debates on the future of society.
A more critical discussion of public spaces and segregation is continuing in Brazil thanks to the stimulus provided by the rolezinhos. The hope for the future is that Brazil will invest more energy and resources in creating spaces for social fraternisation outside the realm of consumption as well as work more effectively to mitigate social inequalities that continuously cause a sense of acute anxiety throughout the country.
Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.